Miraculous Machines: "Halt and Catch Fire" Captures the Spirit of Tech Innovation

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I watched the first half-dozen episodes of H&CF and I was really quite underwhelmed. It was so full of cliches, from the “driven visionary” Joe MacMillen to the punk rock geek Mary Stuart Masterson wannabe Cameron Howe, the characters are just unbelievable and maybe even just a little misogynistic (not in a Mad Men kinda way, pointing out how sexist the 80’s were, but actually misogynistic). The plot points are equally over-the-top, from one OS deleting power-surge disaster to the overheating RAM chip next. I am a big fan of Lee Pace from back in the Pushing Daisies days, and I had a huge crush on Mary Stuart Masterson, but I couldn’t stomach this show.


Maybe my expectations were too high for this show. I thought it would be right up my alley - I love the early PC-era setting. All the technical aspects of the show are great, too. The production is great, the mise en scene is fantastic, I even love the opening sequence and the music used in the show.

But, the end product just left me cold. The show just isn’t very good.


Those are pretty much my thoughts exactly. Additionally it seemed unmoored from history in that the story started with an alternate reality version of the cloning of the PC BIOS, but by the time that happened the personal computer revolution was already years established*, yet the show seemingly treats that event as the beginning. Nor does it very accurately capture the feeling of those days, and I was there, albeit on the opposite coast. I could accept all that though if it weren’t for the fact that the characters just weren’t very likable. Mad Men’s characters were all deeply flawed, and committed despicable acts, but at their core we could identify with the characters and come to like them despite their faults.

*There was even a PBS show about the computer business which debuted in the same year the PC BIOS was cloned – Computer Chronicles with Stuary Chiffet and Gary Kildall (the creator of CP/M) as hosts. This is also the year that the film War Games was released. Personal computers were already part of the popular cultural awareness.


The show doesn’t need more character at its heart as much as it needs better writing in its scripts.


Completely agree (even so far as being a Pace fan from Pushing Daisies). I was around during the tech boom of the early 80’s in Texas and the show completely failed to capture the zeitgeist. I looked forward to it for weeks and was completely disengaged after about 3 episodes.

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I watched all of Season One. I treated it as a sort of somewhat-plausible alternate history, one where events that occurred in many places and over a wider span of time happened in one company.

What actually happened would have been better served with a documentary series. Most of the people involved with the genesis of the Altair, the Apple II, and so on are still alive, or wrote a lot about it.


Wasn’t that done already with TRIUMPH OF THE NERDS?


You know, I recall seeing that . . . but don’t remember a thing about it.

My brother, who has a collection of ancient PCs, watched this show. He told me that it’s fine as long as you turn down the volume so you can’t hear the inane technical prose.


Definitely recommended, Triumph of the Nerds was a Robert X. Cringely jam and he is legit.


I believe I wrote about it at one point


I kinda like it. My perspective on a show like this is that it’s sort of inspired by reality, but not a documentary, so the dumb stuff doesn’t bother me. When I want to see a realistic portrayal of life in tech I watch The IT Crowd…

I’m on the fence about the show myself, but even within its framework it never was claiming to be about the microcomputer revolution of the 1970s but the PC-clone story of the 1980s (maybe less exciting but important to the business world and later everybody as these days basically every computer is a PC-clone – even Intel-based Macs). The first season was set in 1981-1982*, which was when the first PC-clone (the Columbia MPC 1600) was released.

*Although the final episode may have been 1983, as they saw a prototype Mac.

Yeah, we watched the whole season, and we don’t know why. They did try to make the period look, but there was a lot of stuff they just got weirdly wrong. The characters were mostly unlikeable, the dialog was mostly bad [admittedly, many tv shows have survived that]. If they fired all the writers and directors from the first season, maybe that would help, but probably not that much. The ratings on the first season were pretty dismal, I’m amazed they picked it up. Unless it did well on Netflix.

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As I recall the HCF instruction was in early Motorola 68000s. The bad opcode turned on one lot of bus drivers to 1 and the other lot to 0, causing a large current that often split the epoxy casing of the CPU and could in some cases result in ignition (early 555 timers could do the same thing if the short current wasn’t limited.)
It put me off enough that when we started using the 68k series we always bought ceramic cased. But that bug never resurfaced.

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Just out of idle curiosity, does the show trace some of its inspiration to Tracy Kidder’s “The Soul of a New Machine”?

It has been ages since I read that book, but I think there was some influence there.

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I’m certain I watched that, but it has been such a long time!

I’ve read and enjoyed Cringely’s books and columns.

{Checks bookshelves}

After a couple of moves I still have Accidental Empires. It has a PostIt note in it from a co-worker I’d lent it to back in . . . 1992?

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They didn’t have those type of aluminum automatic garage doors in Silicon Valley suburban homes in the ‘70s…

I stopped watching at episode 3 as well. No sense of humour from the programmers at all and a ridiculous under showing of how much work needs to be done to actually code something. As said before, it’s not important of it was well written, but it isn’t. I’ll have a look at the new series, but it’s probably just more boring people doing stuff miserably.